January 20, 2017

Heroic Chinese linguist and dissident Zhōu Yǒuguāng, who turned Peking into Beijing, has died at 111


Zhou Youguang as a young man, many, many years ago.

Last week, the world lost a titan of language reform—and, in the same stroke, one of its oldest political activists—when Zhou Youguang, who wrote his name 周有光, died in Beijing a day after turning 111.

While he wrote more than forty books, translated still more, and spent years delivering zingers to the foreign press about the brutality and corruption of his government (“In all honesty I haven’t got anything good to say about Mao Zedong,” he told Agence France-Presse in 2015), it’s the invention of pinyin—the now-ubiquitous standard for representing Chinese in the Latin alphabet—for which he will be best remembered.

Chinese characters comprise one of the most charismatic, influential, and time-proven systems of writing in the world. They’re more than three thousand years old (popular guesses are that China got the idea from either Egypt or Mesopotamia), and for most of their history have enjoyed huge preeminence over East Asian writing. They’ve formed the basis for a number of other writing systems, including those of Korean (probably the world’s most elegantly designed script) and Japanese (arguably its most cumbersome).

They’re also hard to learn. Most Chinese characters offer little information about how they should be pronounced, and there are thousands upon thousands of them to memorize. Whereas in a language like Spanish, anyone who knows the alphabet can sound out a word like, say, “Romanización,” students of Chinese long needed recourse to workarounds like “character x is pronounced like character y in word z.” These are among the reasons why, as recently as the turn of the twentieth century, China had a literacy rate hovering around fifteen percent. Antonio Gramsci famously called the Chinese writing system “an expression of the complete separation between the intellectuals and the people.”

It was this separation that Zhou Youguang set out to destroy. (In North Korea, Kim Il-sung’s solution was simpler: he banned the use of Chinese characters altogether.) For generations, there had been talk of creating or adapting an alphabet for Chinese, with various attempts periodically cropping up but never taking hold. When Chinese words needed to be represented in languages that use the Ancient Roman alphabet, as English does, there were several schemes of Romanization in play — most prominently the British Wade-Giles system, which renders “Zhou Youguang” as “Chou Yu-kuang,” but also the Yale system, created specifically to be intuitive for Americans in World War II (“Joe Yougwang”), the École Françqise d’Extrême-Orient system (“Tcheou Yeoukouang”), and so on.

When Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he promptly set about making the Chinese language more standard, and easier to read, write, and learn. To that end, he effected one of the most massive—and successful—reform programs in the history of writing. There were two main prongs: firstly, he simplified thousands of Chinese characters, reducing their visual complexity and the number of strokes needed to write them. (Because Taiwan has never adopted Mao’s reform, the name “China” (“Zhōngguó,” literally “Center Country” or, by more archaic convention, “Middle Kingdom”) is written differently in the two places: 中国 in the PRC, versus 中國 in Taiwan.) Secondly, he ordered the creation of an indigenous alphabetic standard by which the sounds of Chinese could be consistently represented; Premier Zhou Enlai (no relation) asked Zhou to head up the project.

Zhou a few years ago, a spry 108.

Zhou’s team named their system Pinyin (拼音), meaning “spelled sounds.” It was remarkably intelligent and regular. Each syllable of spoken Chinese, and each character of written Chinese, was represented by a set of Latin letters that explained exactly how to pronounce it. By associating these syllables with the characters they spelled out, Pinyin made it far easier for students to learn to read and write Chinese, while preserving both the advantages and the prestige of the system of Chinese characters. It has been credited with increasing China’s literacy to about ninety-five percent. It also made possible the introduction of a Braille system, enabling blind people to read Chinese, and, a couple decades after its invention, provided a graceful solution to the problem of how to input Chinese characters into computers.

It also changed how a great many Chinese words were spelled in English. Most famously, the city of Peking became the city of Beijing. Mao Tse-tung was Mao Zedong. By the time he took office, Mao’s successor—who would in Wade-Giles be called Teng Hsiao-p’ing—was known to users of the Latin alphabet uniformly as Deng Xiaoping. (The names of famous figures from earlier in Chinese history have been mostly unaffected. We continue to refer to Kong Fuzi in Latin as Confucius (which is additionally awkward because “Fuzi” is a title, not a name), and while few of us have heard of Sun Zhongshan, he’s a household name as Sun Yat-sen. Similarly, because Taiwan did not formally adopt Pinyin until 2009, Anglophone history has Chiang Kai-Shek leading the Kuomintang, rather than Jiang Jieshi leading the Guomindang.)

Of course, Zhou did a lot more in his 111 years than revolutionize the way the sounds of Chinese were understood and transcribed. Born while China was still an empire, he survived several revolutions, two world wars, and almost unfathomable upheaval. He worked as a Wall Street banker as young man, and put in two forced years as a rice farmer in his sixties after being labeled a “reactionary academic authority” in the disastrous Cultural Revolution. He was friends with Zhou Enlai and Albert Einstein, and co-translated the Encyclopedia Brittanica into Chinese. Having grown up before telephones were commonplace, he lived to be a prominent dissident blogger and play Pinyin-based games on an iPad. He insisted on remaining a problem for Chinese authorities, who couldn’t quite sweep under the rug how appalled he was by the direction of his country, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. This kind of dissent can be dangerous in China, and Zhou expressed his attitude toward that danger a few years ago, speaking with the BBC’s Michael Bristow: “What are they going to do, come and take me away?”

They did not, and Zhou was blessed with an incredibly long and productive life. As he said to an AFP reporter a few years ago, “When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic. The pessimists tend to die.” Hard to imagine better advice for a time of adversities than that.


Note: So, we’ve heard there’s some kind of big news story going on? There’ll surely be plenty to say about the American government in the weeks, months, and, ugh, years ahead. But, for today at least, we would prefer not to. Instead, we’re thinking about a few other things, and we invite you to think about them with us. Stay strong, listen to your heart, and we’ll see you on the other side.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.